Despite the fact the Minnesota Vikings have one of the NFL's more talented running backs in Dalvin Cook, the Cleveland Browns defense may be able to severely limit him in the running game, forcing the Vikings to defeat the Browns almost entirely with their passing game led by quarterback Kirk Cousins.
The Vikings, like the Browns, utilize a lot of zone concepts in their running game and one of the most effective plays they run is their toss. Their offensive line gets outside and Cook is able to pick the hole he wants to the run the ball. His sight and patience combined with his ability to stick his foot in the ground and accelerate makes him incredibly dangerous.
The problem for the Vikings is defending zone and especially attempts to reach block is one of the biggest strengths of the Browns defense. Their tandem of defensive ends, Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney are extremely difficult to reach. They have the length and athleticism to beat opponents to the point of attack and the strength to bubble the play, forcing the ball back inside to their help.
If the Vikings aren't careful, the Browns defensive ends could simply squeeze their tackles inside, collapsing the running lane.
The Vikings left tackle situation isn't good. Rashod Hill has struggled and should rookie Christian Darrisaw start, it will be the first NFL start of his career trying to come off of a groin injury against one of the best defensive end duos in the NFL.
Should the Vikings, behind their talented right tackle Brian O'Neill, somehow make the Browns nervous, they may simply widen out their end to his side to ensure he can't get outside. Against the Chicago Bears, the Browns often lined up their edge defenders wide to discourage attempting to roll out of the pocket. The Bears were never able to get outside either running the ball or in the passing game. In a few attempts trying to escape the pocket, Justin Fields was tracked down and sacked by the speed of the Browns defense.
The Bears offense was then completely unable to function and the Browns defense dominated, putting together a historic performance, surrendering just 47 total yards in the game.
Unlike the Bears, the Vikings would still be able to operate in this position, but it still gives the Browns defense a notable advantage.
At that point, Cook is running inside at Malik McDowell, Malik Jackson, where the Browns would have greater numbers, including multiple second level defenders which may include both linebackers and safeties.
Cook is good enough that he can find success inside, but in the event those defenders are only defending the field between their defensive ends, they can confidently play down hill and try to disrupt plays in the backfield.
This is the matchup the Browns want. They will happily bet on the middle of the defense to win this matchup against the interior of the Vikings offensive line, especially for the defensive tackles that won't be concerned with having to turn and run to chase down perimeter plays.
The Vikings may try to utilize extra blockers such as tight end Tyler Conklin or a wing to down block the end or even a receiver motioning to crack and allow the tackles to pull around to get to the perimeter. That could be easier said than done if the Browns simply widen our their end to align to inside shoulder of the tight end (6i shade), head up (6) or even play outside (7) to ensure they force them back inside. They would then attempt to drive the tight end into the backfield to try to disrupt the play.
Given the toss and their outside zone are such an important part of the Vikings offense, it stands to reason the Browns are going to do everything they can to take it away to limit what their offense can run. If they can run successfully inside, so be it. It would still limit the types of play-action passes they can run and would have the added benefit of keeping Kirk Cousins in the pocket.
The Vikings would then likely bet on their receivers and the quick passing game in general to try to move the ball against the Browns. It's certainly a matchup the Vikings could capitalize on, throwing the ball to players like Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn.
The Browns can then operate largely out of nickel and more likely dime to put as many defensive backs on the field to try to counter it. The Browns are betting on the fact they will eventually find a way to force the Vikings to make a mistake, whether that's in the form of a turnover or simply getting them to punt.
They may then occasionally blitz a player like Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in an open interior gap to either try to get a stop behind the line of scrimmage or generate a quick pressure on Cousins.
When the Browns added Clowney, this was a major part of the thought process. Olivier Vernon could do this as well, but Clowney is longer and more explosive getting up the field. He's a more dominant player at the line of scrimmage and taking the run away.
They have a pair of tremendous athletes with the ability to dominate the edges of the line of scrimmage. Against teams that derive a great deal of offensive success from working to the outside, they may be able to dictate what the offense can run, giving them an advantage. It completely short circuited the Bears, but it will be something they are likely to use against a heavy outside zone team like the Vikings or teams with quarterbacks that create their legs.